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Laos Struggles Between China, Vietnam


U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is welcomed by Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos, September 6, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is welcomed by Laos President Bounnhang Vorachith at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos, September 6, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Laos Monday for a three-day visit to the Southeast Asian country.

His visit shows how far Laos has stepped out of the shadows of its larger, influential neighbors, China and Vietnam.

Since the days of French colonial rule in Southeast Asia, Vietnam has influenced Laos, both culturally and politically. The Communist Party came to power in Laos during the Vietnam War. By the time of the 1975 communist revolution, most party officials had spent time in Vietnam. Many of them even spoke the Vietnamese language.

Nguyen Ngoc Truong is a former Vietnamese diplomat. He now directs a foreign policy research center. He says Vietnam’s government now considers Laos “a very important neighbor.”

Yet some observers would say China’s government has more influence than Vietnam. They note the size of China’s development aid programs in Laos.

Chinese media say China’s foreign direct investment in Laos exceeded $1 billion in 2015. By comparison, Vietnam has a small foreign direct investment in Laos, Truong said. He added Laos cannot compete with what he describes as China’s "economic invasion" of Laos.

Ho Cam Gioi is with the Center for South East Asian studies in Ho Chi Minh City.

Gioi said Vietnamese nationals are still interested in Laos and its language, but that the level [of interest] is low. “Some want to learn the Laotian language to travel to the country to study, to do business and to settle there with their family.”

During his visit to Laos, Obama is dealing with issues resulting from past U.S. policies. In the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. military dropped bombs on villages and rural areas in Laos as America’s war with Vietnam crossed the border.

The Lao government estimated that more than 2 million tons of bombs were dropped during more than 500,000 bombing raids. The government estimated that one bomb fell every eight minutes for nine years.

Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachit and U.S. President Barack Obama talk with the help of a translator during an Official State Luncheon at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos, Sept. 6, 2016.

Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachit and U.S. President Barack Obama talk with the help of a translator during an Official State Luncheon at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos, Sept. 6, 2016.

Millions of cluster bombs fell to the ground in the countryside, but failed to explode. But over the years, many of these tennis ball-sized bombs did explode, killing and wounding civilians.

On Tuesday, Obama met with Laotian President Bounnhang Vorachith in the presidential palace.

After the meeting, the Obama administration announced plans for a three-year, $90 million program for a national study of unexploded ordnance and efforts to clear the bombs.

“Given our history here, I believe the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal,” Obama said.

The Obama administration also said the two countries launched a new period in relations based on “a shared desire to heal the wounds of the past” and build a foundation for the future.

Trung Nguyen wrote this story for VOANews.com. Jim Dresbach adapted it for Learning English. His report included information from the Associated Press. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

cluster bombn. a type of bomb that is dropped from an airplane and that contains many small bombs

shadow– n. a dark shape that appears on a surface when someone or something moves between the surface and a source of light (sometimes used figuratively)

exceeded – v. to be greater or more than something

ordnance n. military supplies including weapons, ammunition, armor, vehicles

foundation – n. something such as an idea, a principle, or a fact that provides support for something

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